Why do adults still make grammatical mistakes?

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

We have all attended school. There, we sat some exams and received our qualifications. But, even after a millennium of education, there are indeed many things we still find difficult. For me, it is chemistry. Perhaps for some others, it is maths. Yet for most people, it would seem, grammar is thing of nightmares.

In previous articles, I have spoken about "language by ear", meaning we sort of understand rules not because we necessarily “know” them, but because we hear and feel for what sounds natural and what does not. So, why is it so many people use incorrect inflections and tenses? Is it even justified to say that this type of usage is "incorrect"?

The ideas are, I think it's fair to say, conflated on this idea. Chomsky presents the idea that it's because of Universal Grammar. Others, like David Crystal, would argue everything we say is correct as long as it can be communicated, so knowing "by ear" is simply the ability to express oneself, not be grammatically consistent. As well as this, we find articles online such as "Ways to Develop an “ear” for English Grammar" which suggests this ability is something that needs to be trained into us.

Why does this happen?

According to Lindsey Kolowich, author of Why Your Brain Makes Grammar Mistakes, said “our brains are wired in a way that makes us all susceptible to grammar slip-ups.”

One explanation for this can perhaps be found in a generally universally accepted hypothesis of “word priming”. This means we store our words in our brains based on relation. Some linguistic researchers agree that we store words that are related closer together in our brains, so they are easier to retrieve and require less energy.

In relation to grammar, this theory could be applied to collocations. This is why, for example, people are more likely to write “I am going, to” instead of “I am going, too” because of how we connect the words “going” and “to” more closely together in our brains than “going” and “too” as we use this second combination less frequently.

But, if we store words based on whether their meanings are similar or based on how often we use them together as collocations, surely people should not be making as many grammatical mistakes as we seemingly hear. It would then take more energy to retrieve incorrect tense uses. For example, if “foot” and “feet” were stored close together, we should not hear adults say “foots”. Equally, if “tell” and “told” were stored close together, we should not hear “telled”. Nonetheless, these errors still occur.

Dr. Stafford says it is because, in a nutshell, grammar is perceived subconsciously as less important in relation to meaning. Therefore, when we speak or type, trying to convey meaning is more important than making sure the tense is fully correct, for example. According to Dr. Stafford, we cannot focus simultaneously on grammar and meaning to high degrees, because conveying meaning is “actually a very high-level task”. This is because a brain would be likely to generalise the simpler tasks so that it may focus on more complex tasks.

Steven Pinker suggests that, like for children, people use an incorrect grammatical form of a verb, for example, when they don’t know it (.e.g with “seek” and “sought”, as most people now say “seeked”) or can’t remember it. Pinker just says adults overgeneralise, too, but simply with a lower frequency as they are more likely to know and remember an irregular change to a verb, for example.

If remembering is a factor, then it is is reasonable to suggest that factors which affect our memory can influence our overgeneralisations. For example, nervousness, tiredness, etc.

Moreover, we must consider what such grammatical mistakes suggest about our understanding of Universal Grammar.

As David Crystal said, it is not that we are saying things incorrectly, it is just that the people who do say, for example, “telled”, are at the start of a grammatical change that may last or equally die. To illustrate, double negation is rarely seen as a mistake anymore, but, when people first started to use it, it was. It is a matter of perception and how often you hear people say it.

In this way, perhaps these “mistakes” could serve as evidence for Halpern’s theory on language acquisition and subsequently challenge Chomsky’s idea of Universal Grammar. Halpern’s theory is that we are born with an “empty” brain and then our brain is developed and wired as we are exposed to language.

Chomskyan linguistics suggests that "the process by which ... certain sentences are perceived as correct while others are not, is universal and independent of meaning".

On the other hand, because the "mistakes" made by adults consistently enough can perpetuate language change, it could be suggested that what we consider correct can also change and isn't universal. What's correct varies from idiolect to idiolect. What is universal, however, is that language does change.

There are not necessarily any standards of grammar that are systematised in our minds innately and that are consistent forever, but these grammatical standards can change as language changes. Thus, our Universal Grammar may change also as our language changes. In other words, this could show how perhaps grammar is not necessarily completely innate (although parts of it could be), but the language we are exposed to creates a set of grammatical rules based on what we hear.

In this way, it could be suggested that we have a "tabula rasa" ("empty mind") at birth, although opinions are vastly divided on this thought. Within the framework of the idea of "tabula rasa", language is inputted into our brains, and due to the biological constraints of a brain (e.g. it's made out of "human meat"), language is connected and wired in our brains in a certain way over a period of time. This would suggest an explanation for the basic set of fundamental grammar systems we seem to have. This is because, as certain linguists have indeed suggested, languages have lots of things in common because we all (who are able) use mouths to create sound. Therefore, language have similarities based on our biological restraints. Could the same thing be said for how we organise language's grammar and syntax in our brains?

What I mean by this is that in order for something to be grammatically universal, it must not only be everywhere at the present moment, but at every point in human language history and future. Linguists and anthropologists like Tomasello speculate that there are too many differences for there to be consistent universal patterns.

Now, this isn't to suggest there aren't some internal and inherent language capabilities inside of us, just that they're not necessarily universal. Our grammars across language may be sufficiently different for a conclusion against UG to be made, that is if we are to believe the evidence proposed in theories like Tomasello's who challenges Chomsky's theory.

Nonetheless, this does not mean some universals don't exist. This is perhaps why children are evidenced to acquire language in a certain pattern at a certain rate universally. Because of the biological limitations of the brain. The input is different depending on where people are and from whom one is acquiring this input of language, but the biological restraints evident in every human create a base level of similarity. After this, differences such as separate language and even idiolects occur. And, because of these similarities biologically, the output from a child would present many similarities in grammatical restraint to the adult.

As a final point, viewing a difference in how we communicate as a “mistake” simply demonstrates how we perceive language and our own language. We are all guilty of gaining a little pleasure in correcting people’s grammar because we view it as wrong. But it is not really a mistake, just a new way of saying something. This could mean that a wording considered a "mistake" now may be used in formal documents in 100 years.

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